The Ladies' Page - Health and Beauty


English Rose - The Perfect Complexion

Painting your Face

Advice on cosmetics varied over the century, and according to the moral stance of the  periodical.  Whilst products to banish spots and blemishes might be recommended, women's magazines were, until late in the century, on the whole wary of promoting cosmetics to beautify the face. When readers asked which powders to use to enhance their  appearance, the answer to "Leontine" in The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, a fairly progressive periodical, was not atypical. It boils down to "Don't!". On the one hand "painting" had associations with lax morals; on the other the harmful effects of some ingredients, notably lead, in face-whitening powders became more widely known. This did not, of course, stop women buying them. In response to this some papers did recommend a particular product on occasion. (See "Victorian Remedies" below.)

*In March 1868 the Saturday Review published an article by that consummate journalist Eliza Lynn Linton. Linton castigated the "modern girl" as a 'creature who dyes her hair and paints her face, as the first articles of her religion'. The "Girl of the Period" was a media sensation. It established, and to some extent, controlled the direction of Linton's career. The press took up the catch-phrase and the debate, with varying phraseology, was still going on a quarter of a century later under the "New Woman" banner.

In April 1868 Braddon's Belgravia, a lively general magazine aimed at the aspiring middle-classes, published "Beautiful for Ever" by J Scoffern, who wrote several popular scientific articles for the magazine. Scoffern approached the subject from a  chemist's point of view. 'Would you wish me- a man liking peace and quiet- to pronounce opinions on this point, to state whether I approve of skin-painting, regarded from a moral point of view, or disapprove of it? Goodness, no! I hate argument. The morality of the thing, ladies, pray settle among yourselves.'

He did, however, point out some other important considerations, as the following short extracts from a ten page essay illustrate:

"Beautiful for Ever"

The white pigments used for skin-purposes at the present time are commonly harmless; time was when a verdict so favourable could not have been given. As for rouge, the best is a preparation, by a treatment unnecessary to state here, from the coccus cacti, or cochineal insect; an inferior sort is got from safflower, the petals of a flower used in dyeing.....

Pearl-powders, as now used, are variously made. Some are nothing else than powdered talc or French chalk; others a mixture of the same with common chalk; a third order contains starch-grains mingled with the preceding one, or both. By starch-grains I would be meant to signify the preparation known as "violet-powder," which really has no more to do with violets than it has with cabbages or cucumbers...


[He explains that it is simply starch-grains perfumed by orris-root, but that perfumers' choice of starch makes  a considerable difference.  Arrowroot  being more  expensive than wheat or potato starches is often 'contaminated'. Wheat grains are too coarse for the skin, but horse-chestnut starch is often used.]


Nothing whatever can be alleged against the use of any starch pure and simple when used for toilet purposes; on the contrary, it imparts a softness and a freshness both salutary and delightful.... When made up with other ingredients to constitute the so-called pearl-powder, is it injurious then?


[His article spends some time on the dangers of white-lead, although he admits that the practice of using it for cosmetics has been abandoned. But other metallic compounds have their dangers. Trisnitrate of bismuth which replaced it ' is poisonous enough to prove injurious to the skin' and turns black when subjected to 'sulpheretted hydrogen'. At the end of reading this article many women must have agreed with Scoffern's general advice, and some might have thought it worth raiding the larder for arrowroot rather than spend their pin-money on "pearl-powder".]

It is not within the competence of any art to give the delicate tints which mantle upon a really beautiful female skin. My advice to ladies having delicate complexions, and valuing the gift, would be to keep their complexions good by ... early hours, not too much dancing, distilled water for the toilet, and low alkalised soap...



Victorian Remedies for Spots and Blemishes


The Young Ladies' Journal (1873) regularly dealt with beauty problems  in its  "To Correspondents" column.  One manufacturer whose products it was happy to endorse was  Eugene Rimmel; even going so far, on one occasion, as to explain to a worried reader that Mr Rimmel had assured them that his Photocrom√© was not "injurious". The correspondent who received the answer below had presumably sent in multiple queries:

Beryl Marsh - In some cases freckles are constitutional, therefore cannot be removed; but those caused by summer heat may be removed by taking the following precaution:-  Before going out of doors bathe the face in warm water, and then apply Rimmel's Lotion (No. 2 curative) .... Glycerine is not injurious if pure. You would get the best at Rimmel's, but glycerine does not suit all skins. The eruption in your face is probably owing to the season; but if you do not find it get better very soon after taking a little aperient medicine, it would then be quite necessary to consult a doctor.

Late Victorian Advertisements for a Perfect Complexion - "Harmless Arsenic"

The pursuit of the perfect complexion continued undaunted with patent products a staple of the advertising industry.

"The Secret" whispered between friends in this 1895 advertisement in Home Notes is the secret of 'the most lovely complexion that the imagination could desire; clear. fresh, free from blotch, blemish, coarseness, redness, freckles or pimples.'
ONE BOX OF DR. MACKENZIE'S IMPROVED HARMLESS ARSENIC WAFERS. Post free for 4s.6d. Beware of injurious imitations.

No modern cosmetic manufacturer would be likely to advertise his product as containing arsenic, however "harmless" he proclaimed it. The product below, however, from the same year, is still marketed and was already well established by the 1890s.

'Pimples, blotches, blackheads, red, rough and oily skin, prevented by Cuticura Soap, the most effective skin purifying and beautifying soap in the world, as well as the purest and sweetest for toilet and nursery, The only preventive of pimples, because the only preventive of inflammation of the pores.'

For more information on product endorsement see the Advertising Page and Beauty Secrets - Beautiful Hair. There is more about Rimmel's products on the Christmas Crackers page.


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Barbara Onslow 2007     page published October 2007 Last updated April 30 2008